Managing the Iranian Challenge: Part II

The second in a series exploring how to manage the Iranian challenge…

The first hint of how to approach Iran is contained in the long-winded phrase “anti-Western, ultra-nationalist, theological conservative, politically radical Shi’a.” Before trying to defeat the enemy, it’s wise to figure out who the enemy is and, indeed, whether or not the adversary truly is or need remain an enemy. An adversary will become an enemy when so defined: Treat an adversary as an enemy and the adversary will respond in kind, thereby “proving” the “truth” of your original error.

We can assume that all Iranians love their country and want to see their society continue to exist, but beyond that, the 70 million people of this nation caught between the 19th and 21st centuries constitute a collection of highly disparate groups, few of which started out “anti-Western.” It’s the long, sorry history of Western interference in Iran’s internal affairs that is responsible for Iranian “anti-Western” feeling; it isn’t opposition to the West. Indeed, many parts of Iranian society have long been attracted to Western ideals of civil liberties and democracy. A desire to protect oneself — to protect moral values or territorial integrity or independence — isn’t the same as being “anti-Western.” In simple terms, to oppose Western interference is not to oppose the West.

The details are complicated, but the bottom line is not: Washington can begin the long road of eliminating Iranian “anti-Western” sentiments simply by ending its bullying rhetorical tone, treating Iran with respect, and recognizing the right of Iran to be held only to the same standards as other countries.

[For evidence that Washington remains far from ready to address the Iran issue with an open mind and intellectual rigor, see this report on the appointment of Dennis Ross.]

The “ultra-nationalist” component in Iran may prove to be much harder to deal with, but the first step is to recognize that this component doesn’t equate to “Iran.” Whatever the strength of ultra-nationalism in Iran, it derives most recently from Iran’s desperate defense against Saddam (and his former U.S., Russian, Arab, European allies) and is strengthened by every insult, every application of pressure, every demand for “preconditions before negotiations,” and every demand that Iran obey rules to which it never agreed and which no other country is required to obey. Those Iranians desiring pragmatic economic development or the strengthening of civil liberties have no ground to stand on in the domestic Iranian political debate as long as Iran is besieged; they’re in the same position, only worse, that Americans were in on the eve of the U.S. attack on Iraq. To speak out is to risk denunciation as “traitors.” And in Iran, those accused of treachery by the regime risk not just political marginalization but death. The world may have to endure Iranian ultra-nationalism until that generation ages, but the world does not have to go out of its way to empower that ultra-nationalism.

As for the “Shi’ite” component, Washington decisionmakers felt it was worth spending a trillion dollars to install a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad, so Washington can evidently live with Shi’ite governments. In addition, Shi’ite regimes constitute a valuable bulwark against Sunni Salafi jihadism. To know that a particular regime is “Shi’ite” doesn’t say much about whether or not it can find common ground with the West.

Even to know that it’s “theologically conservative” says little. We may, for example, find the attitudes toward women of theologically conservative Shi’ite hard to stomach, but our own treatment of women has undergone a revolutionary shift over the past century; if we see ourselves as leaders, it does not follow that we can always insist that others obey our own timetable. Moreover, every major religion on earth today encompasses highly discomforting contention between its conservative and liberal wings. Such moral debates are important and a valid issue to be considered during foreign policy formulation but should not be confused with decisions about war and peace.

The first step in resolving the problem of Iran is thus to recognize that Iran, like other countries, is composed of many communities. This means recognizing that no homogenous entity called “Iran” naturally exists in any sense that is significant for international relations unless we manufacture it. A Pearl Harbor event or a 9/11 event can, temporarily, make “politics stop at the water’s edge. A nuanced, thoughtful policy, in contrast, will permit natural differences within a national political system to emerge. In other words, the natural complexity of a society and the factional complexity of the resultant political system offer endless opportunities for adversaries willing to combine patience, consistency, sympathy, moderation, and generosity.

Looking Deeper.

Having made the challenge very complicated by asserting that Iran is composed of many communities, all of which need to be taken into account, we need some analytical method of simplifying again so we can make progress. In brief, do a small set of explanatory factors exist that drive much of Iranian behavior and that might be used to analyze the behavior of all the various Iranian communities with significant impact on Iranian foreign policy? This essay has identified three such “drivers” of Iranian behavior:

· Security: the need for national physical and economic security as well as the need of a regime for political security; thus, this incorporates concerns about “regime change” from the outside and illegal narcotics that might destabilize society.

· Independence: the freedom to follow an independent national and international path; the former would encompass the freedom to practice one’s own culture, the latter the freedom to pursue foreign policy goals of choice without being marginalized (admittedly difficult in practice to distinguish from a desire for influence). The desire for independence is critically distinct from the desire for influence: the former presents no direct threat. Nevertheless, it is frequently confused by others, who see “hermit kingdoms” as implicitly threatening the global system. Thus, advocates of global free trade may be hostile toward countries that simply want to “opt out” (partly for psychological reasons and partly because such “opting out” denies the “globalists” the benefit of the hermit kingdoms’ resources).

· Influence: both the international bully and the committed idealist proselytizing to the world want influence. An intermediate position would be one that insists upon being consulted on regional matters but is willing to compromise on the specifics.

Different communities within a society will react in different ways. One may emphasize economic security more than military security. Another may feel independence merits greater economic sacrifice. Some may translate “influence” into a demand for political control of neighbors; others may see it in terms of the right to proselytize, and over time the two can get confused (think of the confused relationship between British movement into 19th century China for economic benefit and to protect its missionaries). But the argument presented here is that the behavior of all communities will be most profoundly impacted by these three drivers. The more sophisticated a foreign policy, the more drivers can be taken into consideration, but these three constitute a reasonable starting point.

Combining these three drivers generates a model of behavior distinguishing eight different scenarios representing eight ideal types. These are ideal types because this is of course just a model, so no single scenario (i.e., no octant) can be expected literally to predict actual behavior. Nevertheless, the model may usefully guide expectations and structure thinking about the conditions likely to elicit certain types of behavior.

Consider, for example, the red octant (upper, rear, left), symbolizing an Iran that desires a great deal of influence, perceives itself as lacking security, and which is striving for an extremely independent foreign policy line.

· Security. How Iranians actually assess their security is difficult to determine. There can hardly be any doubt that Iran today in fact exists in a severely challenging political context: Bush Administration rhetorical threats have still only been qualified, not eliminated; Israeli rhetorical threats are being stepped up; U.S. military bases continue to surround Iran; the Israeli military threat only grows; Sunni Arab hostility is palpable; anti-Iranian terrorist groups roam its borders; Sunni Taliban insurgency threatens to bring its old Afghan Taliban enemy back into power; the Pakistan Baluchi instability threatens to spill over into Iranian Baluchistan. In addition, Iran’s economic security is being undermined by a range of factors, including both the incompetence of the regime’s economic policy and the Western embargo preventing it from modernizing its energy infrastructure. It is therefore only logical to assume that Iranians are uneasy about their physical security. Nevertheless, a counterargument also exists. The longer Iran survives without being physically attacked, the more secure it may feel despite continued rhetorical attacks on it. In addition, the replacement of Saddam with a Shi’ite regime in Iraq enormously enhances Iranian security, and the ability of its Hezbollah and Hamas allies in the Levant to hold their own provides a small further measure of security. Finally, the increasingly obvious need of the U.S. for assistance in escaping from the regional mess it is entangled in clearly serves Iranian interests.

· Independence. The degree of independence from international norms that is desired will vary widely across Iranian communities. For most of the Iranian elite, the desire for domestic policy independence is strong, though this is perhaps not true of the average Iranian. The man in the street probably would gravitate toward independence in personal behavior from the regime, except when the international context appears particularly threatening. For Ahmadinejad’s faction, the desire for independence in foreign policy line is also strong, in part because Saddam’s invasion taught them a lesson, in part because they gain power domestically and prestige in the Muslim world from their independent stance, and in part because they believe in Shi’ite proselytizing.

Influence. “Influence for what?” is of course the question. To marginalize a state absolutely is to ensure absolutely that the state will be hostile. No state can logically be expected to accept an international political system that marginalizes it: the ball is in the system’s court. That is, it is up to the system to make the first move, take some measure of risk, and test the intentions of the marginalized state by allowing it some influence. There are many ways in which Iranian influence in its region can be of benefit to the U.S., as is finally beginning to dawn on Washington. The world will not learn which Iranian decisionmakers may accept types of influence the U.S. might find acceptable until Iran is given the chance. The mere offering of options to Iran would alter the history of the region and force Tehran to make tough choices.

Numerous points of contention touched on above remain essentially untested. A key untested question in dealing with Iran is the significance of its desire to proselytize. To what extent particular Iranian factions might trade Shi’ite proselytizing or the right to play regional power politics for international respect and a solid sense of security remains unknown. The answer is unknown because the West has not seen fit to make Iran the kind of offer that would even put the question squarely on the table. Only a far more discriminating approach to Iran by the U.S. can begin to provide the answer.


Ahmadinejad’s neo-con war generation faction seems to fit squarely within the red octant, for example. Other factions may occupy more complex political spaces. Most Iranian factions can be expected to support the right of Iran to pursue nuclear technology, since the rest of the world has this right and, by the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so does Iran.

Mousavi can be expected to agree with Ahmadinejad that Iran faces profound security threats, but he may well be willing to take much more seriously any American offers to address such concerns simply because he has not built his career by frightening voters and is not waving the bloody shirt in his current campaign against Ahmadinejad. Moreover, Mousavi can be expected to put economics higher on his list of security concerns than Ahmadinejad has. Mousavi will probably differ markedly in his attitude toward “influence,” perhaps being satisfied to be treated with respect and consulted on regional affairs rather than exploiting issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to score political points. As for the third driver, “independence,” while Mousavi, prime minister during Iran’s existential war against Iraq, can hardly be expected to return Iran to a position of subordination to the West, it seems likely that he will be much less interested in the egregious emphasis on standing aloof from the West of which Ahmadinejad is so enamoured.

The West has cluttered its negotiating table with negative options and cut off its own nose by its arbitrary blindness to positive options. The multi-party rightwing faction that has controlled Israel for the last generation has encouraged this attitude in great part as a cover for its own expansionist agenda. In allowing itself to be led by the nose, Washington has needlessly sacrificed American security on the false alter of “Israeli security,” in the process endangering the security of both countries. A case in point is the issue of nuclear research. Singling Iran out for discriminatory inspection procedures will only collapse the political space for flexibility. This suggests an obvious way forward: working toward the goal of common inspection procedures for all countries in the region. For the Obama Administration even to suggest this as a distant but morally justifiable goal would open political space in Iran for compromise. As long as Washington acts to preserve the emotional intensity of the nuclear issue, playing into the hands of Tehran hardliners, other factions will have little choice but to express outrage at the U.S. position. Aside from the highly symbolic issue of nuclear technology, other factions may only occasionally overlap with the political space inhabited by the Ahmadinejad faction. Indeed, Mousavi has already made clear in political speeches over the last month his dissent from Ahmadinejad’s Palestinian policy.

In sum, real space exists between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Beyond that momentary difference, so many options exist for offering Iran substantive choices at low risk to the West that momentum toward new positions could be created in innumerable ways. The overall approach is important, as stressed in the original article that provides an overview of how to manage the Iranian challenge. But the details are also important, as will be discussed…

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A future post in this series will take a more detailed look at the array of options for testing Iranian intentions that are at the disposal of Washington in the fundamentally critical arena of national security. As far as can be determined from the pubic record, American decisionmakers do not appear to have done more than scratch the surface of the options that a sincere and imaginative group of policymakers might “put on the table.” Stay tuned.

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